UN-Water, which works across UN entities to coordinate water and sanitation policy, released its first Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS) on Wednesday in Washington, DC. An expert panel with representatives from the UN, donor countries, and recipient countries were on hand to answer questions. The report, which was implemented by the World Health Organization (WHO), evaluates the availability of safe water and sanitation, and highlights areas where efforts are stagnating and where the United Nations can improve its assistance to member states. Results come from surveys in 42 countries and 27 external support agencies.
First, the good news: According to the WHO and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 87% of the world's population, and 84% of those in developing countries now have access to safer, improved drinking water sources. If current trends continue, then the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for water will be met and possibly exceeded.
Progress on the sanitation goal is not promising. At the present rate, efforts to halve the number of those without adequate sanitation by 2015 will come up one billion people short, and even if the goal is met, 1.7 billion people would still not have access to improved sanitation facilities.
The GLAAS report observes that current water and sanitation strategy is not efficiently aligning available resources with need. Less than half of current water and sanitation aid flows go to the lowest income countries. Clarissa Brocklehurst, Chief of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene for UNICEF, pointed out that the "countries that are most in need are the most difficult to invest in." Another panelist, Dick van Ginhoven, Senior Water and Sanitation Advisor to the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs put it more bluntly, saying that "countries like Liberia, or Sudan—they are not donors' darlings."
But acknowledging that the problem exists is the first step to solving it, and it was the general feeling of the panelists that the GLAAS Report provided a baseline by which countries and donors can judge their progress going forward. In the words of Bangladeshi panelist Yakub Hossain, Deputy Executive Director of the Village Education Resource Center, "we need more than words, we need action, we need numbers, and we need deadlines."
Unfortunately, more trouble lurks behind the misallocation of funding. While donors are eager to finance large water and sewer systems, it's these projects that require highly-skilled personnel. The obvious benefit of large systems is that they bring access to large numbers of people, and they are relatively easy to invest in, both for donors and recipients. But given that the report cites difficulties building institutional and personnel capacity as a significant barrier to improvement in the sector, and 62% of current projects are classified as "large," there could be problems ahead if operation and maintenance needs are beyond local capacity. To remedy this disconnect, Van Ginhoven offered the possibility of donor country water and sewer experts working with recipient country operators to improve skills.
But even if local capacity is sufficient, the problem of long term financing remains with nearly all countries reporting inadequate budgets for reaching their goals. Of the total projected cost to reach the MDG for water and sanitation, 75% will go to maintenance and replacement capital costs, yet countries and donors alike are directing a disproportionate share of spending to new capital investments. Sustainable water and sewer systems allocate sufficient funds to maintenance and replacement capital, and support themselves by tariff collection or taxes. However, in many areas where new systems are being installed, the necessary rates are not affordable for residents, which forces countries to let the systems fail or rely on transfers from donors.
Brocklehurst acknowledges that "in our rush to meet the MDGs by adding new served people, we may in fact have found ourselves in a situation where we put in infrastructure that is not particularly sustainable." Still, the short term focus may not be a bad strategy. Funding and capacity may grow to the necessary levels on their own, given that investments in water and sanitation yield between $3 and $34 per dollar invested.
Even as the case for the importance of water and sanitation for health and economic reasons becomes clearer, funding for the sector has fallen off. Between 1997 and 2008, aid for sanitation and drinking water fell from 8% to 5% of total allocations. However, there seems to be a growing awareness among government officials about just how integral safe water and adequate sanitation is to a country's economic growth. In an unprecedented meeting on Friday in Washington, ministers of finance, health, and water from nineteen of the most affected countries along with UN and donor representatives gathered to discuss how to improve access to water and sanitation in the future.
For more information from the panelists, see the questions and video responses below:
Does the GLAAS Report reveal a sector in crisis or the tweaking of a largely successful effort? (Clarissa Brocklehurst)
When the Pulitzer Center last spoke to you on World Water Day in March you expressed frustration that not enough emphasis was put on sanitation. Does the GLAAS Report help to correct the allocation of attention? (Clarissa Brocklehurst)
According to the GLAAS Report, 75% of the required funding to meet the MDG for water and sanitation will go to maintenance and capital replacement, but donors and countries spend disproportionately on new capital. Is there a chance that access could diminish after 2015 due to failing infrastructure? (Clarissa Brocklehurst)
The GLAAS Report says that 62% of current donor funding goes to large scale projects with the remainder going to small scale solutions. Is this an appropriate ratio given problems with building institutional capacity to operate and maintain water and sanitation systems? (Clarissa Brocklehurst)
What can donor countries do to help recipient countries build institutional capacity to operate and maintain complex water and sanitation systems? (Dick Van Ginhoven)
The GLAAS Report observes that the majority of funding for water and sanitation is not reaching the poorest countries. Why are donors having trouble reaching these people? (Dick Van Ginhoven)
Read the full version of the UN-Water GLAAS Report. To learn more about the global water issue, visit the Pulitzer Center's newest online gateway, DOWNSTREAM.
Correction: The original post omitted the role of the World Heath Organization (WHO). According the WHO website, "GLAAS is a UN-Water initiative implemented by the World Health Organization." Also, in the section on progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, the post said that "87% of the world's population, and 84% of those in developing countries now have access to safe, improved drinking water sources." "Safe" should be "safer," as stated on WHO's website. Corrections were made May 2, 2010.